Topic: Tax and Budget Policy

Ag Committee Chair Demands Higher Food Prices

Not content with a protected near monopoly of the domestic market, American sugar producers are demanding that Congress make their pot of subsidies and protection even sweeter.

Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Colin Peterson (D-Minn.), is pushing language in the latest proposed farm bill that would raise domestic price supports for sugar and mandate that sugar imports be used for ethanol production.

His proposals would virtually lock in an 85 percent share of the U.S. market for domestic sugar beet and cane growers, even though a number of foreign countries can grow sugar more cheaply than most American growers. And by the way, did I mention that Rep. Peterson’s district is among the nation’s top producers of sugar beets?

The Bush administration, to its credit, opposes Peterson’s changes in the farm bill. The sugar industry, of course, loves the idea. A spokesman for the pro-protection American Sugar Alliance told this morning’s Wall Street Journal, “We have an administration that seems more interested in supporting foreign producers, than producers right here in America.”

Notice the sugar industry doesn’t mention American consumers. U.S. agricultural policies should not be about favoring “our” producers over “theirs,” but about advancing such national interests as freedom, prosperity, and a more peaceful world. As we’ve explained in detail at the Center for Trade Policy Studies, the U.S. sugar program favors American sugar producers primarily at the expense of the rest of America. American families pay higher prices at the store, while U.S. producers that use sugar as an input — bakeries, food processors, restaurants, candy makers, etc. — incur higher costs because of our sugar program.

As we read daily in the newspaper about soaring food prices, this Congress is the verge of passing a farm bill designed explicitly to raise domestic food prices.

Real Budget Reform

Senator John McCain and other budget reformers are right to rail against the institutionized corruption of federal “earmarking.” Earmarks are, however, just a small part of the massive bloat in the federal budget. Earmark reform is needed, but presidential candidate McCain needs to propose more fundamental budget reforms in the coming months.

Representatives John Campbell (R-CA) and Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) have just introduced an idea that McCain could champion: A constitutional cap on the overall federal budget. You can read the proposed amendment here, but essentially these House budget experts propose that annual federal spending growth should not exceed the long-run average growth in the U.S. economy, except with a two-thirds vote or a declared war.

I’ve proposed a similar budget cap that would be statutory, not constitutional, and thus easier to implement. See here and here.

Either way, the point for Mr. McCain (or Mr. Obama, if he is so inclined) is to promote some sort of overall cap on the budget to drive home that the government’s budget should not grow any faster than the average family’s budget. 

Re: Wall Street Journal Editorials — The Fed Caused the Rise in Food and Oil Prices?

In numerous unsigned editorials, The Wall Street Journal has argued that cutting the federal funds rate to 2% from 5 1/4% last September has been the main reason prices of crude oil and food commodities have soared in recent months. Such commodities are priced in dollars and the dollar was generally falling through February, though not in the past two months (even though the funds rate was reduced by one percentage point).

An April 28 editorial, “The Fed’s Bender,” notes that “since 2003 the dollar price of oil has climbed far more rapidly than the euro price — 273% in dollars, compared to 146% in euros.” It is not likely that the whole 2003-2008 picture reflects “the European Central Bank’s sounder monetary management,” as the editorial implies. The euro had dropped to below parity with dollar until late 2002. And the fed funds rate was repeatedly increased from 1% in 2003 to 5 ¼% in mid-2006 (well above the ECB’s equivalent 4% rate). The euro rose partly because it had first fallen, but also for reasons other than central bank interest rates (economists have no reliable model for forecasting floating exchange rates).

The editorial boldly concludes that “had the dollar merely retained the same purchasing power as the euro, today’s price of oil would be below $70 a barrel.” That is a counterfactual exercise that makes little sense.

Even if we accept the half-true premise that the dollar-euro exchange rate is sensitive to relative short-term interest rates, the dollar might have “retained the same purchasing power as the euro” by having the ECB lower interest rates to 3% and the Fed to keep ours at 3%. Or the Fed might have kept the funds rate at 5% and the ECB at 4%. Although either option might have stabilized that particular exchange rate, they would not have had the same effect on global economic growth and therefore on the world demand for oil.

If oil had been priced in dollars and the euro had not appreciated against the dollar, then the euro area would not have been as insulated as it was against the rising cost of oil. Because demand is responsive to price (particularly business demand), Europe would have bought less oil than it did. Or, to use the editorial version, if the U.S. still faced $70 oil then we would try to buy more. Either way, the price in dollars would not have remained the same.

The Economist index covers the prices of 25 commodities, excluding oil and gold, with food accounting for 56% of the index. By April 22 it was up 31% for the year and 3.7% for the month, when measured in dollars.

That was mostly because of food. Industrial commodities were up only 1.6% for the year.

If we are going to blame the rising price of oil and food commodities on the dollar, do we need a different theory to explain why industrial commodities have barely risen?

Here’s another anomaly: Measured in British pounds, the commodity index was up about the same as it was in dollars—31.6% for the year and 4% for the month. That can’t be because Britain has a weak currency—the pound buys 8.9% more dollars than it did a year ago. It can’t be because the Bank of England cut interest rates too much, since 3-month interest rates are 5.86% in Britain, compared with 1.97% in the U.S.

I happen to agree that the Fed (and ECB) have paid too little attention to the impact of exchange rates on prices of internationally traded commodities. And I suspect the Fed has already gone too far with rate cuts and will have to put rates back up shortly after the election. But to single-out a few sensitive commodity prices that have risen the most (in dollars or pounds) and blame just those prices on the Fed is going too far.

Doublespeak in Health Policy Reporting

By all accounts, U.S. spending on health care has been growing much more rapidly than national output. Health statistics–health spending as a share of national output or per person, compared across developed nations–routinely ranks the United States at the top of the list, and statistics on effective health care delivered per dollar spent routinely ranks the United States near the bottom. So news reporters could not miss the clear implication that Americans need to cut health care spending growth and make their health care sector more efficient. If we could reduce spending on unnecessary and low-value health care services, it would go a long way in achieving both objectives.

Now for the doublespeak: Many proponents of Health Savings Accounts (HSA) that can only be accessed under a high-deductible health plan tout the increased role of health care consumers. With larger out-of-pocket spending initially, consumers have greater incentives to eliminate unneeded and costly health services. But success on this count is routinely dismissed in the media as having undesirable side effects–as in today’s Wall Street Journal (HSA Users Find Hassles Amid Savings, May 1, 2008, Personal Journal, page D1):

…average health-insurance costs rose 3.6% in the past two years for employers who offered high-deductible plans, compared with a rise of 7% for employers without such plans.

That’s followed by

Some analysts say much of those employer savings come because many HSA participants tend to forgo care.

Excuse me, but isn’t this exactly how it’s supposed to work?! The language in all such instances usually hints (as does this WSJ report) that the forgone care is valuable and people with HSAs are therefore suffering unduly. Such implied criticism is unjustified unless accompanied with the qualification that the rejected health care services may not be valuable or cost effective.

Indeed, the article later cites a patient with an HSA “fighting” with a doctor about routine physicals and cardiac exams. The doctor wants these exams to be taken regularly, whereas the patient does not because the high-deductible HSA implies larger out-of-pocket payments. In my personal experience, both types of health checkups are most often a waste of time–all they do is separate the patients from their money, which goes to the doctors.

But if many more consumers were to obtain HSAs and economize their health care spending, it would clearly be a problem for the medical profession. And news reporters usually accept, without further questioning, analysts’ comments about unneeded patient suffering because of forgone care. Clearly, wider use of HSAs and better management of consumers’ health care dollars face tremendous hurdles–the medical profession’s self-interest being the biggest one of all. (And I hope my doctor doesn’t read this.)

Uncle Sam Wants You

USA Today ran an article about the ever-expanding band of bureaucrats on all levels of government. Citing Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the author points to a new 76,800 bureaucrats added to payroll from January-March this year;

That’s the biggest jump in first-quarter hiring since a boom in 2002 that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By contrast, private companies collectively shed 286,000 workers in the first three months of 2008.

For the most part, when a public employee is hired the full cost of their labor – including generous government pensions and health care coverage – is not accounted for upfront.  With the baby boomers starting to retire, the costs of maintaining the army of bureaucrats will only rise.  Tack on the large unfunded liabilities in government-provided defined benefit plans and retiree health plans, and you easily have a trillion-dollar problem

Most governors in “fiscal crisis” states will call for temporary hiring freezes that fail to address the core issue of reckless government expansion.  But watch for some states, like Tennessee, to take steps to cut costs by culling a small number of their taxpayer-funded workers.

Re: Martin Feldstein — The Fed Should Stop Helping Commodity Speculators?

In The Wall Street Journal on April 15, Martin Feldstein of Harvard took a position between Makin and Chapman, saying the Fed should have left the federal funds rate at 2 1/4%, because a lower rate would cause “rising food and energy prices.” Feldstein told The Guardian the dollar had to fall further on April 11, so the link he envisions between Fed policy and commodity markets is not through exchange rates (I’ll discuss that in a later post), but just upside speculation alone:

Lower interest rates induce investors to add commodities to their portfolios. When rates are low, portfolio investors will bid up the prices of oil and other commodities to levels at which the expected future returns are in line with the lower rates.

But investors go short as well as long–betting the price will fall– and they can use credit for that too.

The only reason to make a leveraged bet that the price of oil, gold or corn will go higher is if you expect the prices to rise by enough (during the holding period) to exceed the interest expense.

Ignoring trading costs, if you can borrow at 5% to invest in something whose price is expected to rise by 8% that may look like easy money. Yet oil futures are cheaper than near-term spot prices, and gold has recently fallen by about 13%, so momentum trading is dangerous. It is properly called “greater fool investing” – just like paying too much for a Las Vegas condo on the assumption that some greater fool will later pay even more.

It seems unlikely that today’s quarter-point cut in the fed funds rate will result in lower margin rates for commodity traders. But even if it did that is not nearly enough to make a significant difference for more than a day or two.

U.S. politicians seem equally angry with upside “speculators” and downside “shorts,” but it is the contest between the two that constantly gropes for the right price.

I am shorting oil through an exchange-traded fund (DUG), and shorting precious metals through a mutual fund (SPPIX). I’m also slightly long the dollar (UUP). Don’t try this at home without a net. But if I win those bets, the world economy wins too.

Can Congress Control Medical Spending?

At a recent health policy forum in Washington, D.C., noted health economist and wit Uwe Reinhardt shed some light on that question:

[T]he following can be said: the United States Congress has absolutely no interest in reducing … dubious Medicare expenditures. Let me repeat that. The United States Congress has no interest whatsoever in reducing dubious Medicare expenditures …

So the interesting and intriguing question for all, for journalists too, [is]: why is the Congress so disinterested in cost containment when it constantly whines about having to restructure Medicare? That is to me a huge mystery.

Obviously, Prof. Reinhardt hasn’t read this.